You tell yourself you're not going to try to find the Winter Soldier. He's not a threat to you, currently, and you have other business to take care of. You kiss Steve Rogers on the cheek and you walk away. It's a cicada summer, loud droning in the cemetary, husks clinging to the tombstones.
The droning stays in your head during the drive to the safehouse, so you turn on the radio. It's a classical station. You're too slow, it takes you a minute to identify Prokofiev, and you turn the dial sharply; a talk show smoothly settles into your ears with calming voices.
The safehouse is in Connecticut so it's a bit of a drive. It's the middle of the night when you park the car a mile from the house and settle your backpack properly. The walk through the dark would be pleasant, if the insects would shut up. Cicada summer. No one knows about this place, not even Clint. Isolated location, strong internet connection. Time to lie low while you set up a new alias. You're thinking of naming this one Sharon, after Agent 13.
You're not thinking about Prokofiev, or metal, or snow. The windows are open, and the warm summer air drifts through the house. You have five different escape routes calculated to the second. You sleep spread out on the table because there's no one there to tell you not to.
You've been having the same dream for a while now, with minor variations. The tiny girl with long red hair, so skinny and so afraid, looking up at a monster, a man with a metal arm. You shouldn't be dreaming about this. The ballerina is supposed to stay locked up tight. Compartmentalized.
Her costume is white as snow, but it's not real. The monster is, and he says, “Try to kill me.”
You tell yourself you're not going to try to find the Winter Soldier, and you keep your word. Mostly. Your movements are perfectly logical. Paris for a forged birth certificate. Serbia to reestablish old connections. Dallas to kill a woman who would have killed you, now that your secrets are exposed and she knows what you did. You try your best to make it painless, and add another tick to your ledger.
If you happen to be tracing the path of the Winter Soldier's known missions, that's completely coincidental.
Steve emails you from Brooklyn, from Italy, from the Alps. Places he went with the man who would become the Soldier, seventy years ago. Each message the same. Failure. You didn't expect anything different. He's had a lot of practice at being a ghost.
Still, you have a feeling they're looking in the wrong places.
Sam only emails you once, to ask if it's normal for Captain America to go thirty hours without sleep. Well, what's normal anyway, you reply, and you whisper it to yourself in your tiny apartment in Argentina. You close your laptop, let it lie on your stomach, let yourself lie on the floor listening to the sounds of people in the streets outside enjoying food and wine and company. It's summer here, but up north, you know, the cold wind has begun to blow. The cicadas have withered and died.
In the dream, something is wrong. The music is off, the ballerina stumbles. Glass blows out of the mirrored walls in a rain of shards. The man with the metal arm says, “Try harder.”
You wake up and you're shaking. The arrow necklace slips over your knuckles, delicate. Budapest. Budapest is real.
Your thumb hovers over Clint's number, but you put away your phone without calling.
You tell yourself you're not going to try to find the Winter Soldier. Turns out you don't need to. He finds you. Back in D.C. in the cold creeping onset of winter, you're sitting on a bench by the reflecting pool, and he's there. You know who it is from the moment you register a presence at your side. There's no other man in the world who could sneak up on you like that.
You look at him. His dark hoodie hides the arm. He's made some kind of effort at hygiene but his hair is matted. Sitting down, he's not really very much taller than you. Certainly not the towering monster of your dreams.
“Natalia,” he says, and you say
He doesn't exactly follow you home. You both sit there for a while, staring at the water, and then you get up and leave without looking at him, but when you unlock your apartment he's there, lounging at your kitchen table and drinking your orange juice. You don't begrudge him the juice. He sounded like he had a pretty sore throat.
You say, “The captain's looking for you.”
He says, “I know.”
You pour yourself a glass of orange juice, and sit down across the table.
You don't think he could kill you, not here in your own apartment, where you know the location of all the knives. You fought him to a standstill three times, so even if he beat you all the other times, you know it can be done, your muscles remember how to take him down.
You can't read his expression.
He finishes his orange juice, and says, “I think you can help me.”
“Help me?” he pleads, and you can see it's killing his bitter vicious pride, having to ask for help. Which is of course why he's in your apartment, and not Steve's.
You stand up and walk into the living room, and after a moment he follows. You stand a few feet in front of him, and you pull off your shirt. You take his living hand. You prepare for an attack but he just flinches a little. You take his hand and you guide it to the scar on your stomach.
“You did this.”
You take off his jacket and he catches on and removes his own shirt. You look at the map of scars on his chest for a moment before finding yours. You touch it, gently at first and then hard enough to hurt. “I did this,” you say. “With a knife.”
It was the second time you almost beat him, and the only time you drew blood. He never used weapons in those training sessions, and all he ever left on you was bruises.
When he shot you, he didn't remember you at all.
He strokes your stomach, and it's your turn to flinch, but you're not afraid, not like you were with Banner.
“These things,” you say, “they're real.”
You look at him and you remember.
“Hard to get a good angle from here,” he says, loading the rifle with the smooth seamless motion you never tire of watching. “And visibility will be poor, with the snow.”
“That must be the point,” says young Natalia, seventeen and cocky and deeply in love with her terse, brutal killing machine of an instructor. “Wouldn't be a good test if it wasn't hard, right?”
Natalia lures the target out into the open and James blows his brains out with a perfectly placed bullet and they weigh him down and toss him in the Moskva. This happens. You have been over it again and again in your mind and you are sure this is a real memory.
He says, “What did you call me, when we knew each other?”
James. You called him James.
The name sounded so exotic to you and you rolled it around on your tongue. James the sniper who taught you American English, who taught you how to fight like a machine and like a cornered animal both at once. He taught you because you were the best. The strongest and the most devoted.
He first saw you at a ballet rehearsal and knew you could use that grace to kill- no. False.
He first saw you after you'd completed your first kill, you were high on adrenaline and he complimented your skills- no.
He first saw you when you were six, and the teachers said, she'll be your partner, if she survives.
You put on Prokofiev. Romeo and Juliet.
He has too few memories and you have too many and the irony is killing you. Metaphorically.
He sits backwards on one of your kitchen chairs, arms folded over the back, silver on black, and you cut his hair. Matted lumps fall to the ground. You say, “Who are you, James?”
He says, “Someone who kills people.”
He says, “Someone who likes the color green.”
He says, “Someone who likes killing people,” and you recognize this as a core truth, an ugly pillar upon which to build an identity. He says it with disgust but he also says it with belief. You remember your own core truths. I am a survivor. I am a believer.
“I'm not the captain's Bucky. I'm not even your James.”
He says, “Why are you helping me?”
You touch the arrow necklace and say, “Because someone once helped me.”
You take the bed and he gets the couch, and you listen until you can hear his breathing even out, and then you fall asleep, and dream it's your nineteenth birthday again; you tell this to James and he kisses you, 'for luck', and then you kiss him back, but did it really happen? It must have; how else would you have known what his body looked like under the jacket?
He wakes up and sees you typing. “Telling the hounds where to find me?”
“Why not? You're Rogers' friend.”
You blink. “I don't do friends,” you say. “And sometimes the best thing you can do to help someone is to hide the thing they're looking for.”
“You learn that from me?”
“I learned it from myself,” you snap at him, but he's looking at you so wide-eyed. “Tell me why you came to me.”
“Because Captain Rogers is a good person.”
“And we're not.”
“And we're not,” he repeats.
You have an advantage over him. You know every terrible thing he's ever done, and you can guess at the terrible things he's thought. All he knows about you is that your name was Natalia and your thighs around his neck felt familiar. He doesn't know about the fire, about the mercenary work, about Budapest and the horrors you've committed.
He sits in your apartment and works on his arm with your borrowed tools. You sit and watch him. The cold seeps in around the windows, around the spotty insulation in this old building that's still younger than him. There are things you should be doing, but you sit. And watch. This is not how your interrogations usually go. There's nothing for him to tell you, except his hoarded bitterness.
Sometimes he looks up and watches you back.
“You don't remember who you were?”
“No,” he said, and then, decidedly, “It's not important.”
“It is important,” you insisted, tracing the scarring around the arm. “If you don't know where you come from, you can't know where you're going.”
“I know my mission,” he said. “I don't want to know anything else.”
You told him, “I was a ballerina.”
"I've been here too long," you say. "I need to move."
He doesn't respond, but he follows you to the car and puts a small bag in the back. You search it while he's going around the car. It contains a toothbrush, another jacket, a small map of Brooklyn and a pair of very old and battered dog tags. Even monsters have to think about dental hygiene, you guess.
You get in the driver's side, and he meets your eyes and he knows you looked in the bag, maybe he even deliberately gave you the opportunity.
As you drive you keep trying to think of ways he could possibly have recovered the tags. Maybe they're not his, maybe he just mocked them up to distract you. You glance away from the road. He's asleep, leaning into the window, head on jacketed arm, drooling a bit on the jacket. Not exactly the picture of cunning. There are bags under his eyes. You resist an urge to brush his hair away from his face. You turn your attention back to traffic.
Sometime later George Michael comes on the radio, and he wakes up enough to croon along, soft and soulful, and you wonder when he was awake long enough to learn the lyrics.
Detroit is colder than D.C., but significantly more removed from pissed off government agencies. James slings his bag over his shoulder, then takes your heavy suitcase and lugs it up the stairs before you can voice an objection. The apartment isn't much to look at. There's a cd player, but you left your music collection behind. There's a bed and a couch. You moved the bed to be next to the window, when you set this place up, and now you move the couch so you can keep an eye on James while he sleeps.
Nobody ever bothered to program either of you with cooking skills, so you eat takeout on the floor in silence.
"I don't know all my trigger words," he says, over the sounds of a Clint Eastwood movie. He's watching the movie, or pretending to. You're working, or pretending to. There's a limit to how much you can do from the safe side of a screen. You see Steve sent you an email. You don't read it.
"I know the Soviet ones," you say. "They were in your file. I don't know the HYDRA ones, but it might be hidden in the data I released. I'll check."
"I need to know them," he says. "Can I see the file?"
You hand over your second copy of the folder without looking away from your laptop. After a minute he turns off the TV, and the two of you are once again surrounded by silence.
You dream and he's slamming you to the ground and you're choked with shame and failure. "Have to try harder than that," he says, then the metal arm hauls you up. You're smaller than you should be. He gives you a music box, but when you open it there's no dancer inside, just a pile of broken glass. You throw it at him, but it's not him any more, it's Steve with a sliced face and bleeding hands. Steve raises a gun and shoots you and you wake up.
James is a dark shadow by the wall. "Nice to know I'm not the only one with nightmares."
You don't want to think about that.
The Winter Soldier is not your crime, not in your ledger.
So what is he doing in your apartment?
What is he doing in your dreams?
You saw him one last time between then and the cliff. James, you said, annoyed that he was here interfering with your job and relieved to see him alive. Why are you here? Where have you been?
and he'd said, who the hell is James
and that was not the first time you found out that something important had been taken from you but you swore it would be the last
You go out to do mundane things eventually, and when you come back he's standing by the living room window, blocking the easiest escape route. In Russian, he says, “Want to dance?”
It suddenly hits you that you've been looking at this all wrong. This whole time, he's been the one interrogating you.
You haven't been played like that in quite a while. You're impressed.
“Try to kill me,” he says, and he's smiling, and it's not a nice smile.
You're not going to play his game again. You're grown up now. You've faced down a Hulk, for a certain value of faced down, and you've foiled a god, and you've taken down S.H.I.E.L.D. This is just another man.
The scar in your stomach aches.
This time, you're choosing the weapons.
“Your name is James Buchanan Barnes,” you say in the accentless American English he taught you. “You were born in Brooklyn in 1922 to Thomas and and Margaret Barnes. You got good grades in school. You were charming. People liked you. They were sad when they heard you'd been killed in action."
He raises a gun in his right hand. When did he get a gun? Why haven't you seen it before? No, you have seen it before, it's the gun Steve shot you with in the dream. “Stop,” he says. He's not smiling anymore.
You hear yourself and you sound very cold. "In 1942 you decided to enlist. You probably told yourself it was because you liked the uniform, or you wanted to impress the girls, or even that you wanted to protect the weak, like Steve. But none of that was the real reason, right?”
"I'll shoot you," he says, but his arm is wavering.
“Steve says you like mustard on your hotdogs. He told me he had to help you cheat to pass math and you always made fun of his drawings and that when he was really sick and everyone thought he was going to die, you got so angry that you took a box of matches and-”
“Shut up!” he shouts, loud enough to drown you out, and yes, the Winter Soldier's melting and there's nothing underneath but a frightened angry child.
“Put the gun down,” you say. He drops it like it's made of ice.
“You're a killer, James. It's in your nature. You need to accept that, and once you do, you'll be able to face Steve.”
“Shut up about Steve,” he says. “You don't know anything.”
The ballerina's costume is soaked red. Clint asks, “Do you know what it's like to be unmade?” The cicadas leave their brittle skeletons hanging on walls and fences. The snow covers the blood.
“I know enough,” you tell him. “I know you're a better man than you think you are. You were torn down and used, but your strings are cut now, and you have an opportunity to rebuild. If you want to. Do you want to?”
He falls to the floor and starts shaking. “Yes,” he says.
You crouch down next to him. You're shaking too. Relief. He's not a threat.
“Sorry for shooting you that one time,” he says, and it's almost a joke.
“It's okay,” you say. “Everything's okay.”
You pick up the gun, let the cartridge fall out, hit the floor with a thunk.
"But never point a gun at me again."
"No promises," and he is definitely smiling now.
"You are very irritating," you tell him, and it's almost a confession.
That night you let him have the bed, and you fall asleep curled on the couch, the first snowfall of the year erasing the world beyond the window, and if you have any dreams, you don't remember them.